An Ecopsychological Alternative to “Maiden, Mother and Crone”

I’ve always had issues with the “Maiden, Mother and Crone” triad (which shall be referred to as MMC from here on out) in neopaganism. It stems from Robert Graves filtered through Wicca, but seems to have bled over into generic neopagan lore. While originally it was intended to describe certain supposed trinities of goddesses, it has since been applied erroneously to human women as well. Neither deities nor humans seem to do so well when shoved into archetypal pigeonholes–while I may see totems as archetypal in nature, it’s as representations of all qualities and associations of their given species, not as “Brown Bear is the healer, Grey Wolf is the Teacher”, etc.

It’s the humans in specific I’d like to talk about here. As someone who is deliberately childfree, I already have reason to dislike the MMC’s focus on the uterus and its functions as defining characteristics of what it means to be female. I used to subscribe to that whole concept that “fertility” could be symbolic as well, dealing in creative endeavors like artwork as one’s “children”. But that still limits women to “creative”, “fertile” and “nurturing” roles–as I mentioned to someone on my Twitter account, what about “Little Hellion”, “Hostile Corporate Takeover Organizer” and “Crazy Cat Lady With Attack Bengals” as archetypes? These are pretty limiting, too.

And then there are the awkward attempts to shoehorn men into similar categorizations, like “Youth, Warrior, Sage”, which at least have a little less dependence on the functionality of one’s reproductive organs, but are still unnecessarily limiting.

And this led me into irritation and annoyance with the whole gender binary thing and the Western adherence to strict dualities which seems to be especially pronounced in the States.

And then I got pissy about people mistaking the map for the territory.

And then I decided to finally write this damned essay, which has been bouncing around in my head half-formed for gods know how long.

See, I was changed a few years ago when I read Bill Plotkin’s Nature and the Human Soul. It’s not as well-known or appreciated as its predecessor Soulcraft, but it was a really formative book for me. That’s where I first learned about the concept of ecopsychology, which isn’t so much a specific school of psychological thought as it is an approach to both theroetical and applied psychology that automatically factors in the human relationship to nature along with relationships to the self, other humans, etc. It ties in beautifully with animistic beliefs and practices and gives additional structure to these concepts. In fact, a number of ecopsychologists employ core shamanic techniques in their clinical practices. And this was the book that led me to research local graduate school programs to find whoever had ecopsych classes available, which in turn completely changed my life on a lot of levels.

Anyway, what makes this book pertinent here is that Plotkin has designed what’s essentially an ecopsychological developmental theory. The book focuses on what he has labeled “The Wheel of Life”. It’s modeled on Erikson’s eight stages of human development. However, where Erikson’s stages are largely tied to one’s neurological development and, to a lesser degree, chronological age, and also are weighted more heavily toward children and adolescents as developing human beings, Plotkin’s eight stages are not so strictly scheduled, and in fact a person may not necessarily go through all eight even in a natural lifespan. While the stages do correspond to Childhood, Adolescence, Adulthood and Elderhood (as Plotkin terms them), these are more based on psychological maturity than physical age. A person may be well into physical adulthood, but still be somewhere in one of the two Adolescent stages in Plotkin’s model.

Additionally, the tasks that Plotkin proposes for each of the eight stages are much different from the tasks Erikson described in his model. Where the latter is based primarily in self-development focusing on life as part of human society, Plotkin creates a connection between the internal and external environments, as well as the human and nonhuman components thereof. There’s also a strong element of the Hero’s Journey, albeit without Campbell’s gendered interpretation thereof, in the development of the human being in the Wheel of Life. In fact, it’s entirely gender-neutral, which I thoroughly appreciate.

It’s a wonderfully pagan developmental model, though it’s not at all religious. I tend to recommend ecopsychology as a resource for nature-based pagans because it synthesizes psychology with mythology, spirituality (without specific religious trappings) and, of course, ecology. Again, it doesn’t espouse a specific school of thought; one culture’s mythology is not seen as superior to another’s. Rather, the function of mythology (and the other elements of ecopsychology) is what is explored and applied–similar to how I work with the function of shamanism in my culture rather than any prescribed, specific type of shamanism.

I would like to propose the Wheel of Life as an alternative human developmental model in neopaganism, replacing the constricted, outdated, and ultimately historically inaccurate MMC triad. This goes for any and all derivatives, which are necessarily based on a flawed system. I haven’t used it nearly as much as I would like, but it’s something that I have integrated into my personal, private view of myself for a while now. Nature and the Human Soul is still in print, and I can’t recommend it enough, whether as an alternative to the MMC, or simply as an effective structure for greater understanding of the self.

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The Quandary of the Other

As I was poking around in my garden today, pulling weeds, turning soil and traumatizing earthworms in preparation for early spring planting, I was thinking about some of the “why” of what it is I’m doing here with this whole shamanic experiment. Because it really is an experiment. I’m testing a whole bunch of concepts, most of which have been tried in varying combinations by other people, but not, to my knowledge, in quite the way I am.

What I was thinking about was an extension of my thoughts in my last column in Rending the Veil, In Defense of the BINABM. Many neopagans and others criticize the fact that Americans (and other Westerners) have a tendency to gravitate toward the Big, Impressive North American Birds and Mammals (BINABM) like Grey Wolf and Brown Bear and Bald Eagle. And even I’ve done the same; hell, a lot of why I wrote DIY Totemism was to help people break out of the idea that those were the only totems with any power.

But I keep finding myself working with these BINABM in my shamanic work, and a large reason is because those are the animals most commonly in our cultural consciousness as being “properly totemic”. Rationally, some of us can realize that other animals have a lot of intense and amazing qualities we can learn from. And we can also realize that we downplay the importance of animals we have domesticated, partly out of guilt, and also out of familiarity. So we don’t really romanticize Domestic Dog, Cow or Pigeon in the same way.

Instead, we look to the totems of animals that many of us will never meet outside of a zoo or sanctuary, and maybe even not then. I mean, I’m a great example. I was only about two or three when my relationship (obsession?) with Grey Wolf began–way before I was cognitively capable of any sort of reasoning or belief. There had to be at least something cultural in there, from all the books (and, to a lesser extent in my case, television) and other media I had been exposed to even at that young an age. There’s something there, and it’s valuable in the practice of meeting people where they are.

See, all those BINABM? They’re one representation of the Other. Generally speaking, in American culture*, the only one I can really speak of with any authority, there’s a pretty severe tendency toward strict duality. We create dichotomies that are sometimes violently opposed to each other, and it’s tough to get people to consider the model of a continuum instead. This leads to a lot of really pointless arguing about everything from men vs. women to science vs. religion to my academic theory vs. your academic theory, in which people throw away the chance for a deeper, more integral understanding of reality in favor of planting a flag somewhere. Anything less than 100% dedication to your cause is seen as weak, untrustworthy.

I do believe there is a place for the concept of the Other, but it isn’t this either/or model. It’s the both/and. Just because I do not see myself as violently opposed to people of other races, cultures, sexes, genders, etc. does not mean I see myself as being the same as them, or being able to speak for them. Far from it. But neither do I see allowing their influence into my understanding of the world as a threat. And it’s the same way with “nature”. I consider myself ultimately to be a natural being; I eat, sleep, breathe, fuck, shit, and do a whole host of other things that require me to be connected to everything else. The fact that there is a city in the middle of my bioregion does not make the bioregion cease to exist. I do have to consider the things that make me different from other denizens of nature, like my frontal lobes, and the adaptations that frontal lobes have helped humans to create. Nature is still an Other, but not one which is entirely untouchable.

These are things I work with in my shamanism, deliberately, for myself and for those I offer my services to. These are the dualities I want to turn into continuums. Spirituality is seen as opposed to materialism. The body is seen as opposed to the mind/spirit/etc. And, drawing on both spirituality and ecopsychology, humanity is seen as opposed to nature. This insistence on either/or perspectives, as opposed to both/and, creates a very harshly delineated “Other”, one which must remain separate at all times lest we taint ourselves. And that includes the “Other” human beings.

At its most extreme, the “Other” manifests in things like deliberate and institutionalized racism, sexism, and other forms of oppression. But sometimes it’s not that intentional. A really good example is in the tendency in both American nonindigenous shamanisms and neopaganisms, and in ecopsychology, toward tunnel visioning on dominant, largely white, culture as a basis. It’s not that white shamans and pagans and ecopsychologists are deliberately trying to exclude people of color. But let’s face it–all of these movements are largely perpetuated by white people, and that’s something we need to be aware of, not in the sense of “well, that’s just who’s interested”, but also what we may be doing that makes these movements seem less welcoming to people of color. It may just be that there’s not enough dialogue about issues of race and culture in shamanism and ecopsychology.

Or maybe we’re uncomfortable bringing up these controversial issues amid our pretty rituals and romantic wilderness idylls. I think Carl Anthony, in his interview with Theodore Roszak in Ecopsychology, really summed up this problem succinctly:

“Why is it so easy for these people to think like mountains and not be able to think like people of color?” (Anthony, in Roszak 1992, p. 273)

He’s referring to the well-known essay by Aldo Leopold, one of the granddaddys of environmentalism and its various derivatives in America. The phrase “Thinking Like a Mountain” has become bandied about pretty commonly among environmentalists and ecopsychologists as a way of reminding us to embrace the Other. Yet we feel it’s safer to deal with an Other that’s more distant–and, perhaps, one that can’t talk back to us so easily. After all, many Native Americans feel patronized and otherwise pissed off when white people claim to have had past lives as Indians, and let’s not get into the horror that is the “guided meditation” to “get in touch with your Native self” (yes, I’ve seen this and variations of it). Clearly we can get away with things like Joanna Macy’s and John Seed’s Council of All Beings in which we speak for beings we assume can’t speak for themselves–like mountains and nonhuman animals. Imagine, though, if we did a Council of All Races, in which a bunch of white people made masks to be like various people of color.

And that’s where we really need to be careful when we’re working with the concept of the Other, and more importantly, our relationship to it. Yes, it’s safer for me to work with abstract totems of various nonhuman animals who can’t complain if I misrepresent them, at least not in the same way other human beings can. But I’m also very aware of the limitations that my ritual work has in working with people outside of my cultural familiarity. As a shamanic practitioner, I know that the whole concept of “culturally neutral” is bullshit. Core shamanism, for example, isn’t culturally neutral. It’s white, middle-class, college-educated shamanism, even if all its practitioners don’t fit all of those parameters. And I know that’s what my shamanism is, too, because I’m the creator, and that’s the cultural background I have.

Here’s the thing. I grew up in a small town in the midwest that was almost entirely white. Then I moved to cities, but still gravitated toward subcultures that again were largely white. So my experience is almost entirely working with other white people, within a culture largely created by white people. Same thing goes for middle class and college-educated. These aren’t bad things, but my experiences are pretty damned limited, considering how diverse the population here is. So I have a lot of Others, as it were.

That’s why I’m training to become a licensed practicing counselor. Especially if I end up in an agency setting, I’m going to be working with clients from a much broader variety of cultural and other backgrounds than what I’ve previously been exposed to. My program is heavily engaged in issues of social justice, which has just helped to make me even more aware of my experiential limitations. It’s not that I’m flogging myself over being a guilty white person. It’s that I realize that my own limitations in dealing with people also limit my potential for helping other people. Becoming a trained counselor won’t automatically give me awesome multicultural skills, but my curriculum has included a lot of information and discussion about how to work with clients with significantly different backgrounds in a way that respects them as well as ourselves. This hasn’t always been a comfortable thing for me, because I have become aware of just how limited my experiences have been and how much I don’t know, but rather than drown myself in white-girl guilt, I’ve instead cultivated a curiosity of “If this becomes an issue, how can I broach discussion with my client of the best way to resolve it?”

And that is also part of my work with the Other. The Other isn’t just the exotic, the nebulous–it’s the immediate and very real. Some people may need to start with more abstract, removed Others, like animals and mountains. That’s okay–it’s where I got my start. But it’s why my shamanism isn’t just the formal rituals and the romanticization of other beings–it’s also a profession that brings me into contact with a whole host of people who can’t just be understood through a simple guided meditation or masked ritual.

* Or, more correctly, predominantly white “mainstream” culture.

PantheaCon and the Bear Performance Ritual

So at this year’s PantheaCon in San Jose, CA, I officially did my first big public group ritual. Ever. Really.

See, I’ve been feeling things converging toward taking my practice more public as I’ve become more confident in what I’m doing, and when I’ve checked with both the spirits and human peers, I’ve generally been supported in this. So when the time came to submit workshops and other activities for this year’s PantheaCon, back in the fall, I decided to take the chance of doing a shamanic ritual there. I figured if it got accepted, then it would be a chance for me to really put what I’m doing to the test.

The more I actually practice my shamanism, the more I really find I dislike the one-on-one model of practice, where you just have the shaman and client in isolation, and it’s fairly streamlined, with a little drumming, but not much in the way of pageantry. And I’m really fond of the concept of sacred play and ritual theater as facilitating suspension of disbelief and magical states of consciousness. This is important to my practice because I work with the self as a series of systems–physical, psychological, spiritual, etc. I find it easiest to approach magical work from the psychological angle, but with the understanding that I’m affecting the whole shebang. And play is a great way to engage the psyche.

I also am of the opinion that shaman circles aren’t the way for me to go. I dislike being in a group where it’s basically (please forgive the saying) too many chiefs, not enough indians. Not only does the process have to be watered down to accommodate everyone, but personally, I don’t want, as the presider over the ritual, to be responsible for the safety of a bunch of people in the Otherworld. I do not agree with the common (though not universal) core shamanism assertion that journeying is safer than dreaming (and I don’t even think dreaming is always safe). Just because the place where, for example, Brown Bear lives is close to my starting point and is a relatively safe place for me, doesn’t mean that that place will extend the same courtesy to other people.

Therefore, my conception of a “group ritual” in my shamanic practice isn’t “we’re all gonna journey together and be this raucous drumming party romping through the Otherworld in search of soul fragments and cheap beer”. Instead, I’m fond of the model in which there is a presiding shaman who is the relative expert, and the rest of the community, whether it’s a long-standing one, or part of a Temporary Autonomous Zone, helps to create the space within which the shaman works. That’s where I’ve been trying to go with this concept of shamanic performance ritual.

Other than the Grey Wolf and Brown Bear rituals I’ve done in my home, I haven’t really been able to put this to the test in an actual group setting. I’ve practiced various elements in private in preparation, but nothing is the same as actually doing the work. So the PantheaCon ritual was a way for me to try out, with a larger group and in a different setting, these things that I’d been mostly developing in theory. And it was the first time I’d done work with an in-person client, which I’ll write about more in a bit. (My client had been very aware of this from the beginning and was more than happy to be my guinea pig.)

Because of the experimental nature of this ritual, I made it very, very clear both in the preparation workshop prior to the ritual, and right before the ritual itself, that if anyone did not feel comfortable participating in something that was still basically a work in progress, they were more than welcome to leave before I got started. Also, I specifically chose a ritual with Brown Bear because s/he is the totem I have had the most experience with in spiritual and magical practice; s/he has always been the first to step up when I wanted to try a new practice, and s/he has been my greatest guide in my shamanic work, even more than Grey Wolf. And we negotiated the parameters prior to the ritual itself, so that the ritual was mainly (though not entirely) a formality to enact what we had agreed. So there were a lot of factors in place to minimize potential disasters.

I also made it very, very clear that I did not want anyone following me into the Otherworld while I journeyed. Trancing during the drumming was fine, just so long as the people remained here, and I had (human) helpers keeping an eye on the participants to make sure everyone was okay while I was occupied with my work. I explained in great detail when everyone else would get to drum/chant/etc. along with me as part of helping to maintain that collective space, but I wanted to make the boundaries clear. To be honest, I was a bit worried since neopagans in general are used to a high degree of participation, and the shamanic circle is pretty common in and of itself, so I was worried that people might be bored, or not get what I was trying for. However, the orientation workshop served pretty well to make my points clear to folks what was happening, and why, and I couldn’t have asked for a better group of folks.

So what, exactly, happened? Along with the above points, I spent the orientation workshop giving background on my practice over the past decade and change, how I was weaving various disparate threads of practice into a cohesive neoshamanism, and why. I answered questions and addressed concerns, and we all had a really good rapport together.

And then there was the ritual itself. There weren’t as many people as I thought would be there, fewer than twenty, but it was also eleven at night and we were scheduled opposite a drum circle (stiff competition when you’re dealing with a crowd used to being heavy participants). Still, it was a great group, and I was able to get right down to business.

My setup was pretty simple. I had brought my brown bear skin, from a very old rug, and laid her out on the floor with my various tools and offerings to Brown Bear on her. My drum was there, too, and my client had laid out his coat to lay on during the ritual. I also had a bottle of water and a bag of jerky, just in case my weird-ass metabolic issues decided to act up, or if I needed to bring edibles into the Otherworld with me (better to have it and not need it than need it and not have it!)

I started off with a warmup. I believe very much in the power of humor to break people out of their defenses, and so I started off with a few jokes, some banter, and a dirty political limerick, all of which went over quite nicely. It got people to pay attention to me and relax and laugh–and focus.

After this, I greeted the land spirits. I don’t do a circle casting, but I do like to greet the more prominent genii locii, and the four directions make convenient delineations. So I greeted local spirits like the Guadalupe river (who I went to visit shortly before the ritual) and both sets of mountain ranges, as well as evoking my connection to Oregon and the Columbia River, among others. I shook my Black Bear rattle and had everyone else drum, clap, etc. along with me. I ended each evocation with a yell, “HA!”, and by the time I was done everyone was yelling with me–which was great fun. I’m definitely keeping that.

Then it was time for the journey itself. I think this was the toughest part of the performance part of the ritual, because I had anticipated there being more drums than there were and therefore didn’t bother preparing myself to narrate during my journey, which takes more concentration. So people mostly were there watching me sit and drum, and make noise along with me, to help act as a heartbeat to help me find my way back. I need to either figure out how to deal with narration when there may be a lot of noise, or some other way to keep the other people occupied with something besides boring old me sitting and beating on a drum while my spirit’s off elsewhere. The risk of dramatic narration is that if I get too focused on telling people “back home” what’s going on, I find myself slipping back to my body before I’m done with my work. On the bright side, I found that having the heartbeat that people were creating helped me orient back to my body, which was a concern since this was the first big journey I had done from a relatively unfamiliar location.

Brown Bear was sleeping, of course, but s/he woke up long enough to tell me what I needed to do with the offerings to hir and the gift to my client. S/he said s/he wouldn’t come hirself, but that s/he’d send a part of hirself with me to help with the ritual. So I did what s/he told me to, and came back to do the work in this world.

Once I returned, I explained briefly what was going to happen. Then I draped the bear skin over me, and tapped out a basic beat for people to follow. I danced until I felt the spirit of the bear skin, and that tendril of Brown Bear’s energy connect in me, and I became a bear myself. I went to my client and sought out ill areas, and he told me later that the first place I homed in on was a place that had been hurting. I went to these places on his body, and I yanked out, for lack of a better word, buildups of “bad energy”. It wasn’t a full-cure–these are chronic conditions–but it was a way to clear out the crap that had built up on an energetic/spiritual level at the sites of these conditions and bring temporary relief. I then breathed in Bear/bear energy/power/whatever you want to call it into the voids left by these things I removed, snuffling and whuffing like a bear, and tearing out the bad with teeth and claws while putting in the good with breath.

I then gave the client a small gift, and told him what to do with it. Were he local to me, I would see about arranging this to be a regular thing, not as a cure-all, but simply as maintenance. Such as it was, he actually reported immediate, measurable physical improvements in his symptoms–whether you want to call this the placebo effect isn’t as important as the fact that the ritual did what it was supposed to do.

I danced Bear/bear back out, and then did another acknowledgement of the land spirits (again with that fun yell at the end!) I had checked on the other participants at a couple of breaks in the ritual itself, just to be sure everyone was alright, and then again at the end once everything was cleared out and I knew my client was okay.

Unfortunately, I didn’t do such a great job of making sure I was okay. I spent most of the rest of the weekend pretty fragged and fatigued, partly due to not grounding properly, but also because I’ve found that shamanic work takes more out of me, physically and otherwise, than any other spiritual and magical work I’ve ever done–and that includes the crazy-ass chaos magic experimentation I did a number of years ago. I now have a much better idea of why people talk about the sacrifices associated with shamanic practice, and why my instincts were screaming at me to dig my heels in when the spirits were still unsuccessfully trying to convince me to do this stuff in the first place. Granted, I already had insomnia and metabolic issues, but they and the shamanic work like to play into each other post-ritual, and I’m still learning to find a good balance of self-care with this sort of work.

My client, and other people, really seemed to appreciate the ritual itself for a variety of reasons. And I learned quite a bit from it about how to proceed in the future, what worked, and what needs more adjustment. Most importantly, though, it reaffirmed for me that yes, this is what I need to be doing. More on that later. For now, I’m going to continue recovering, and assessing the results of my work.

Sustainable Urban Pagan Life

One of the things that neopaganism and ecopsychology have in common is the tendency to idealize rural living and emphasize the unhealthy aspects of cities. At the most extreme, cities are cancerous pustules on the flesh of the living Earth, full of filth and pollution and psychic assault at every turn. Conversely, the wilderness is presented as pristine, a paradise and the pinnacle of healthy living environments.

With paganism in specific this often manifests as the desire on the part of numerous pagan folk to buy up some land and create a wild sanctuary where other pagan folk can come visit and be in the healing wilderness. I’m not the first one to point out that if everyone bought up some wilderness, there’d soon be no wilderness left. See, even the presence of a few humans affects the wildlife in an area. With some species, that effect, so small as it is, still has a significant impact.

I used to be one of those pagans. In fact, as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to buy up land and have it preserved forever and ever. But I also wanted to live there. Now that I’m older and (one would hope) wiser than my ten-year-old self, I’m aware that such a plan has many complications, the impact on the wildlife being only one.

I’ve also been living in cities–Pittsburgh, Seattle, and Portland–for the past not-quite-decade. And I like it quite a bit. The small town I grew up in was seriously lacking in the cultural and subcultural input that I take for granted these days. I love 24-hour Wifi/coffee shops; I love goth/industrial dance nights; I love the abundance of pagan, occultish, and otherwise alternative folk. I love that, especially in Portland, I’m in a place where it seems everybody has tattoos, even high up in corporations and in the health care field and, well, just about everywhere else. I couldn’t get these things in the place I grew up in. I did get a lot of closed-minded douchebaggery, and daily psychological abuse on the part of my peers, and a dearth of exposure to anything outside of country, oldies, and soft rock music. While not every small town is this way, and not every city is as progressive as Portland; I’ve had better luck being myself in urban areas. So for that and many, many other reasons, I’m quite happy being a city girl.

Back to the sustainability angle, though. There are just way too many people to be able to let everyone enjoy rural living while allowing the wilderness to have enough room to be itself without any human intervention. Not only would it require too much of what wilderness remains, but there would have to be a drastic, fundamental shift in the way that Americans (and most other industrialized humans) approach land use.

The problem isn’t cities in and of themselves. It’s how they’re built and managed. For example, most people have absolutely no conception of how a city changes the nature of the bioregion it’s in, from the climate to the soil and waterways. This isn’t just within the actual perimeters of the city, but a large area surrounding it–everything’s connected.

Reading books like Green Metropolis has given me a better appreciation for the city as a vehicle of sustainable living. After all, if one can live sustainably on under an acre of land, and when people can be concentrated into a smaller area, leaving more untouched places for the wilderness to recover, why not? Less time spent traveling, easier access to resources, greater human cultural diversity in a given area–what’s not to love?

Yes, there are numerous studies in ecopsych/environmental psych and other disciplines showing the negative health effects of cities. This, again, goes back to how cities are designed and run. Psychological stress from urban life often comes from the wear and tear of commuting, unpleasant physical environments lacking greenspace and other amenities, economic depression, and a lack of physical safety. These things are not limited to cities, though; it’s just that because the people are more concentrated, so are the problems.

The solution is not to dissolve cities and push the more sensitive wildlife even further into the corners of the wilderness as we create happy rural communes. The solution is to make cities better places to live. Of course, this is much easier said than done. Apart from the sheer logistics (and arguments thereof) of greening a city, there are considerations of class such as gentrification; cultural factors, to include immigration and spirituality; what to do with the open spaces that remain, as well as how to continue feeding larger groups of people with omnivorous options, and how much of the open space should go to that; and so forth. And, of course, not everyone is going to want to live in a city no matter how nice. Lots to think about.

I still want to interact with the wilderness, but as a visitor, not a resident. Like the spirit world, I want to try to leave the wilderness to its native inhabitants, and only go in as necessary.